The Game

By Jamie Angevine

    Once upon a time on a rainy Tuesday, the Gods decided to play a game.

    “What would happen if we altered one tiny element of history?” He speculated.

    “Time flows both ways,” She answered. “What’s done can be undone.”

    Rock, Paper, Scissors - and He lost, as usual.

    She pulled back her bow and released Karma’s arrow toward the Earth. It zipped through ozone and centuries and struck an insignificant target in the middle of a desert. Amused, the Gods settled in to watch events unfold.

*

    Two scarab beetles circled around a ball of dung, trying to steal it from the one that perched on top. He threatened with shaking forelegs from his superior position. Then, in the blink of a compound eye, a scorpion popped into existence beneath him. The beetle jumped off in surprise and the other two danced in confusion. The scorpion’s dangerous tail lashed out lightning fast, striking the back of the smallest insect. His short legs quivered and he froze. The tail whipped out again. The other two beetles scuttled away, not daring to interfere.

    The scorpion inched forward, twitching in anger. A low hiss filled the air. The beetle wondered what would happen if he stood his ground. He wondered if it was all a bad dream. Then a wave of sand interrupted his thoughts.

*

    The young child hunched over the skirmish in wide-eyed fascination. That scorpion appeared out of nowhere! She forgot her own suffering while caught up in someone else’s, even if it was just a dumb beetle. It didn’t fight back when attacked. But she, too, had cowered beneath the whip. Two days later and still her skin was on fire.

    Anger at her shortcomings made her want to punish something. She kicked out her foot and a shower of sand buried the insect.

    “Break’s over!” her brother warned.

    She started to follow when remorse nudged her conscience. Was the beetle okay? She fished it out with cupped hands. Maybe it would fight back someday and become something more.

    “Maybe I will, too,” she whispered to it. “This will not be my fate.”

     She joined the others for a hard day’s work in the shadow of the pyramid.

*

    “Ancient Egypt’s pretty cool, don’t you think?” Colin straightened his safety goggles.

    “Mmmhmm.” Chelsea half listened while she prepped for the experiment.

    His lab partner was smart and sweet, but also shy. He wanted to ask her out but kept rambling instead.

    “I heard they used levitation to move the blocks into place,” he continued. “How else could they have built those tombs?”

    She read the lab instructions. “Measure out 4 grams of sulfur.” When she was done he checked the readout on the digital scale.

    “Almost there. Ugh that stinks.” He wrinkled his nose.

    She tapped a little more onto the metal surface, then answered his previous question. “My guess would be slave labor.”

    “Oh. You’re probably right.” He picked up the bar magnet and pressed it between his fingers, fidgeting.

    She nudged his shoulder and laughed. “Levitation sounds way cooler, though.”

    He took a quick breath as squirrels raced through his stomach. “So, are you excited for the class trip tomorrow?”

    She smiled. “I am. Actually, I’m looking for something. Maybe you can help.”

*

    “So, are you ready to fill me in on this mysterious errand?” Colin asked.

    They perched on a log near the bonfire that someone started with lighter fluid and a torch. About a dozen classmates gathered in packs of three or four around the perimeter. The chaperones, a couple of dads, stood smoking off to the side. Three boys struggled to assemble a tent nearby, and a fourth stood watching and barking orders.

    “It’s funny you mentioned ancient Egypt yesterday,” Chelsea began. “I’m part Egyptian on my mom’s side, and my grandfather has always been obsessed with finding out who we really were.”

    He inched closer to her, pretending to scratch a bug bite. “And?”

    “Nothing yet. But it’s weird. He gets these feelings about things sometimes. For example, years ago, he told my aunt that her baby wasn’t going to make it.”

    “Oh, that’s awful.”

    “Yeah, but the strange thing is, she wasn’t even pregnant yet. And he was right. The baby did die.”

    Colin shivered. “That’s wild.”

    “It happened when I was really little. Anyway, a few months ago he got in touch with some professor in Cairo that claimed he had information about our family. My mom didn’t want him to go. She worried something bad would happen. He’s gotten really forgetful since my grandmother passed away.”

    “Was he okay?”

    “Well, he came back fine, but it was like the trip didn’t happen. He couldn’t recall anything. Then last week, he disappeared.”

    “Oh my god.”

    “We searched but he hasn’t turned up yet. The thing is,” her eyes slid away from him, “I also sense things sometimes. I feel like he found something out and it made his brain go a little haywire. And I think he’s nearby, waiting for me.”

    “Really? Why?”
    “Well, we’ve been here before, it’s one of his favorite places. And something’s telling me I couldn’t look until now. So, as soon as I can sneak off, i’m going to find him.” She sounded confident.

    “It can’t wait until tomorrow?”

    “No, it has to be tonight.”

    “Then I’m going with you.” He risked putting an arm around her and she leaned against him.

*

    It’s been three days. Or is it four, five?

    One morning he awoke in an abandoned cabin, shivering under a rough woolen blanket. Supplies and food lay scattered around the room. After a quick cold scrub in the nearby stream, some of his life returned. He knew his name and recognized where he was, but not how he’d gotten there or why.

    Something hovered at the edge of his mind, something important. This confusion happened to him more frequently now, but he imagined moments of clarity like tiny seeds that sprouted up through the ground. They couldn’t be rushed.

    I went to Egypt. I discovered something…

    As he moved along the path today, a delicate tendril of thought crept into his mind. He grasped for it, stumbled, and fell to his knees.

    The moment stretched. The vine reached upwards.

    Splayed fingers swam through damp soil. He leaned down, forehead touching the ground in prayer. Then he slowly rolled onto his back.

    The leaf-thought unfurled and captured the light. He laughed out loud as his past returned in a rush of memories. Wide eyes drank the sky, swished the cocktail clouds, and spat out the birds. Many hours passed and he enjoyed the sun.

    That night the moon’s face sang to him. He retrieved his leather bound journal and stepped into the moonlit glade. A circle of stones cried out for fire and he gathered leaves and twigs to burn. Smoke drifted while stars skated the black ice overhead.

    Then he knelt down and opened the book. Rough fingers gripped a pencil and he passed on his knowledge. It was time she knew who she was; who she’d been.

    Behind him a twig cracked and he ripped out the page as a reflex. Two shadowy figures approached and one ran towards him.

    “Grandpa! I knew you’d be here.”

    Without turning, he said, “I found the truth.” Then he collapsed.

*

    When they met him by the fire, he was already suffering from pneumonia. He regained consciousness one last time. In the hospital room, he grabbed Chelsea’s hand and pulled her close.

    “The answer is in here. Look!” He pushed the book at her, then fell back, exhausted. He died two days later.

    They discovered a necklace in her grandfather’s belongings that was gold and shaped like a beetle. The note said, “For Chelsea, the symbol of rebirth and transformation.” She felt closer to him with it on and kept reaching up to hold it. That night she had a vivid dream about ancient Egypt. She toiled in the heat and struggled to survive, but eventually rose to power. She woke with the necklace hot in her hand.

    After the funeral, she sat alone in her grandfather’s study poring through his journal. The pages overflowed with stories she’d already heard of his travels, musings about family history, and sketches of archeological findings. But she had yet to find something significant.

    Late afternoon sun crawled across the floorboards and up the heavy oak door on the far wall. A ladybug wandered in and out of the old fashioned keyhole. Then it flew over and landed near her thumb.

    She watched it meander for a moment and her mind drifted as she counted the dots on its back. Mr. Turner’s voice returned from sixth grade bio. “Insecta, Coleoptera. A ladybug is a type of beetle.”

    Then her breath caught. Beneath the tiny feet, she saw something new. She tilted the book sideways to catch the light. There it was, the edge of a torn page, peeking out of the leather cover.

    She pulled it free and unfolded it. A drawing of a woman with a face like hers stared back. She had thick black hair under some sort of crown, and wore a sleeveless dress. On her chest was an amulet shaped like a beetle. At the bottom of the page he’d written these words:

 

As it happened before, so it shall be again.

The past and the present are one and the same.

Remember your story, remember your pain,

And never forget, we’re all part of the Game.

    

    Chelsea’s heart pounded as she touched the similar amulet around her own neck. She felt dizzy as a memory of a sunshine-bathed courtyard flooded her senses. Then it faded away.

    The ladybug landed on the drawing then flew up into the air. It zipped through the open window towards the garden steeped in late summer enchantment.

*

    The Gods turned to one another.

    “Interesting,” He commented. “He figured it out. Does that mean we lost?”

    She shrugged her shoulders and looked at the bow and arrow. “There’s always next time.”

This short story was originally published in Penworks (May 2020)

Placed 2nd in the Trumbull Literary Competition, Fiction Category